September 01, 2003 12:00 PM

It was no secret that the four boys were as close as brothers. David Altschuler, Jordan Satin, Jonah Richman and Adam Cohen had been friends forever, since bonding at age 8 at Camp Baco. Even now, after high school, they relished spending their summers together as counselors at Baco in Minerva, N.Y. “I asked him once, ‘How could you love each other so much?'” said Jordan’s girlfriend, Lexie Ellman. “It’s not surprising that they did what they did.”

What they did was sacrifice their lives in a doomed attempt to save one of their own. “These kids would do anything for each other,” says Cohen’s cousin Darryl Abramowitz. “They were amazing, amazing kids.”

Aug. 12 was to be the boys’ last day off, and they decided to spend it swimming at one of their favorite spots, Split Rock Falls, a popular destination for locals on the Boquet River in Adirondack State Park. A quarter-mile-long stretch of cascading water, deep pools and boulders, the falls were treacherous under the best of circumstances; now the river was running high, swollen by recent rains. As the boys were scrambling along a rock ledge to get to a pool downstream, David Altschuler slipped on a slick 14-in.-wide shelf. The 18-year-old plunged into the whirlpool, his black curls disappearing under the surface within seconds. As he saw his brother’s friends prepare to dive in, Ben Altschuler, 22, tried to stop them. But in a heartbeat, Satin, 19, Richman, 18, and Cohen, 19, were gone.

The teens never stood a chance against the torrent of water, even though Richman had been an ocean lifeguard and, along with Cohen, co-captain of their high school swim team. Not only were they fighting the raging current, but the foaming white water was so full of air bubbles it reduced the buoyancy of their bodies. “They probably only lived as long as they could hold their breath,” says New York State Police investigator Michael Doyle. “You could have been Mark Spitz in his prime,” says Lt. Patrick Fonda of the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations, “and there’s no way you’d get out of this.”

The drownings stunned the town of Woodmere, N.Y., the Long Island community where three of the teens grew up. (Altschuler was from Philadelphia.) “The kids considered themselves part of an extended family,” says Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg, who taught Richman and Satin at Hebrew school. “They exercised together, licked their wounds together and won together. They were like the Three Musketeers. All for one and one for all.”

During the days that followed, families and friends wept at the tragedy, yet smiled at their memories of the four, who were so full of promise. “Jonah was in both the marching band and the football team,” says Hewlett (N.Y.) High School classmate Jon Amoona of Richman, an aspiring sportswriter at Northwestern University. “So he wore his band stuff under his football uniform. He’d take the uniform off at halftime, play and then put his uniform back on. I called him Mr. Everything.” Adam Cohen, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was “the leader, and the fun didn’t start until he got there,” says his cousin Darryl. “We used to tease the boys. We’d ask, ‘When are you going to stop going to camp?’ We never understood how special it was.”

Special enough that Jordan Satin and Adam Cohen were buried in their favorite camp T-shirts, while Satin’s mother wore another Baco shirt to the service. “I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with the rest of my life,” Barbara Satin said to the 1,000 people who attended the funeral of her son, an avid skier and a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “He was the most special son anybody could ever have.”

In Philadelphia hundreds gathered Aug. 17 to bid farewell to David Altschuler, the promising math and science student who should have been starting his first year at the University of Wisconsin. “These young men are all heroes in the purest sense,” his father, Dr. Steven Altschuler, told the assembled mourners.

Still, the grief and the soul-searching are far from over. “We brought up the most perfect kid, and we taught him to help someone in need,” Cohen’s father, David, says sadly. “We taught him so well it caused his death. He was too perfect.”

Pam Lambert

Caroline Howard in Hewlett, Kathy Ehrich in Minerva, Robert Calandra in Philadelphia and Fannie Weinstein in New York

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